Where contemporary culture has come to think of heaven as a place to chat, catch up with friends, and eat ice cream, conservative believers are concerned that God has been left out of the picture. A new book by Newsweek’s religion editor, Lisa Miller, covers this and other top stories on the celestial beat.
Ten questions for Lisa Miller on Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife
What inspired you to write Heaven?
About a year after 9/11, I wrote a Newsweek cover story on heaven. It was triggered by this idea: In a suicide bombing, everyone thinks they’re going to heaven. The bombers are martyrs, according to their beliefs, and are going to straight to heaven to receive the rewards promised there. The victims are martyrs, according to their beliefs, and are also going straight to heaven. So: which is it? Is everyone going to heaven? Is there a different heaven for terrorists and for the people killed by terrorists? This led to a very basic exploration of ideas of heaven: Heaven as a real place, heaven as an idea of something beautiful and perfect but unattainable, heaven as a location somewhere, heaven as a process, heaven as a galvanizing or corrupting influence or an incentive for good (what the Bible calls “righteous”) behavior.
As I dug deeper, I began to see that people have been asking the same questions about heaven since they started to talk about it. While they’re unanswerable, they’re also worth asking.
First, what does heaven look like? In Islam, it looks like a garden. In Christianity, it looks like a city—and a garden, too. The orthodox often see these descriptions as literal: Randy Alcorn, an evangelical Christian who has written a popular book on heaven for the conservative Christian audience, talks about heaven as a place like Boston, with museums, libraries, parks, and no litter or crime. It’s a busy place, he says. Progressives tend to see the scriptural descriptions—the pearl gates in the Book of Revelation, for example—as metaphorical. Thus, the Qur’an promises that in Paradise, there will be gardens, running water, and ripe fruits. The righteous will be clad in silk and recline on couches, ready to be waited on and to receive the attention of houris, dark-eyed women. We all know that Mohammad Atta, who flew American Airlines flight 11 into the Twin Towers on 9/11, was inspired by this promise. But among progressives, the sex promised to the righteous in the Qur’an isn’t sex as we know it, but something mysterious and sublime for which sex is a poetic stand-in.